'Captive State' Co-Writer Erica Beeney Discusses The Influence Of History [Interview]

Captive State is a sci-fi thriller that moves like clockwork. Director Rupert Wyatt's film always maintains its propulsion without any redundancies or large chunks of tedious exposition. Like the characters trying to start an uprising in a world dominated by aliens, Wyatt and co-writer Erica Beeney always keep their story moving. Compared to other bloated or gigantic alien invasion movies, Captive State is a refreshingly minimalist and stripped down sci-fi movie.

Similar to Wyatt's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, there's a sense of grounding and familiarity that doesn't make it too hard to suspend one's disbelief and buy into this world. It's so grounded, in fact, Beeney and Wyatt often looked to history for inspiration. Beeney, who previously wrote the Project Greenlight movie The Battle of Shaker Heights, recently told us about some of Captive State's influences, whether it's a political film, and writing a surprisingly empathetic antagonist.

When you have a story with this many characters and moving pieces and a world to build, where do you begin?

It's interesting actually, because there was just a screening we had last night. It was the first time in a couple of months that I had seen the movie, and it was so great, and in a way, almost surprising to me how much every scene is threaded with so many details. Paying attention to how they come together that makes the whole, even that was kind of like, "My god, this is a lot of work," but I did it! [Laughs]

Basically the process was – I don't know how other people go about constructing intricate plots like this – but what we did was a little bit forward, a little bit backward. Meaning we knew certain global things that we definitely wanted to do starting out, and then we started layering in pieces in between, but then even after the first rough cut and then showing it to an audience, or a couple of friends and family and getting feedback where they said, "Oh yeah, we totally understood what this piece is saying, but what we didn't understand was this." And you sort of go, "Okay, I see," so we know this piece needs clarifying. We need to bring that up in the mix, and we need to lay another breadcrumb to emphasize this part and take away the breadcrumbs that have already done too much work. It was really starting with an idea and then getting feedback to see how closely we are to where we want to get to with it.

What elements of the story maybe took extra refining and clarification? 

Well, I would say that...I think we always approached it with this idea that we weren't taking sides, if that makes sense. That we wanted to tell a story of people under occupation and the choices that you are forced to make in those situations and make choices as difficult for the characters as possible. And sort of show, hopefully, the humanity on all sides of those choices and trying to take the notion of good guys and bad guys...It was a real effort to try and maintain that neutrality with each of the main characters, if that makes sense. Yeah, to sort of try and show them all in their fullness, so that certain moments you really understand them, and at other moments you really don't like the choices they are making.

Even though he's making very unethical choices, I was surprised by how empathetic John Goodman's character was throughout the movie, and him probably not wanting the whole world to get destroyed because of the group.

I'm so glad that that was what you felt, 'cause that was what we were going for. We were trying to understand – getting to the mind of someone who had collaborate and say, okay, how would a good person justify those choices that on the surface seem very not okay? And you're right, he would say for the greater good of my neighborhood or there's a line, "We shoot our own dogs," and it's the notion of that kind of honor, this farmer's honor, like if my dog's sick, no one but me is going take my dog out back and put my dog down.

It's very impressive how Goodman makes an antagonist who's very silent that empathetic and expressive. With [his character] Mulligan, did you and Wyatt want to rely on silence as much as possible?

Yeah. I think we were both really inspired by those certain '70s, really minimalist kind of thrillers, and I always was impressed with how much you could do with as little as possible. I learned in writing you sort of write a scene and you put in all the dialogue that you think need to be there and then if you've done a good job with the mechanics of the storytelling, nine times out of ten, you don't [need as] much of the dialogue. You sort of go into the process knowing that, if that makes sense.

It does. Captive State is not a political film, but like those '70s movies, based on whatever a moviegoer brings to it, they could politicize it or draw parallels to today. How much did you want to reflect the modern world? Would you be happy if someone saw it as a political film?

I think that your parallel to those '70s movies is exactly right, but when I think about The Parallax View or Manchurian Candidate or whatever, I think it's the political in the sense that there suggestible about people's motivation in politics and in power in general, and I sort of think of it more that way. I don't think that there's sort of that partisan political message the way more common today. I mean, I hope and I like to think that it is more that notion of bring truth to power, constantly scrutinize the social framework as it exists and be skeptical of it. And if this movie was a super pleasurable experience for people that also got that out of it and came out of it sort of seeming more critical of the information that was said every day, I think that would be a good thing.

I also wonder if some people tend to politicize movies because politics are weighing heavier on their minds now.

Yeah, totally. No, I mean I think it's very interesting. We just [read] a couple of posts where somebody said, and it's all questions all based on the trailer online or something, so of course it's not the full good view, but one person says, "Oh, propaganda against everything that make America great," and then some of the people saying, "Oh, this is a great take down of the libtards" or whatever.

YouTube comments?

Yeah, exactly. You don't want to go too deep in those. You see it through whatever lens, whatever goggles you've got on, right? I wish we could all take the goggle off for a minute, but that seems hard in this day and age, doesn't it?

Rupert mentioned Army of Shadows and Battle of Algiers as inspirations for himself. Along with those '70s films, were those movies on your mind as well?

Yeah, I mean Army of Shadows definitely was so inspirational, but I think that that notion for me, I would say...what this brings to mind, and it's a little sideways so forgive me, it's less about certain movies. One thing I just kept on thinking about were things I read about, probably two main pieces on the Middle East, but certain pieces about Belfast and Northern Ireland. I remember reading something about Lebanon and how it was called the Terrace of the Middle East, and that it was the incredibly beautiful city. For myself, growing up with all the pictures and the images, all you got about Lebanon was essentially that it was kind of a pile of rubble and similar now to places in Syria or Palms, where you think of a smashed up place, and to imagine those places as the Paris or the thriving city that they were.

I really want to bring that contrast to life. This notion that we can actually do it together, placing that kind of situation in the near future here in America, so that you could really see like, Palms was Chicago and realize that it can happen in an instant. Life can really change and go from something that's ordinary everyday to something where you really are put to the test. Again, the tagline is "Go to this movie and have fun," you know what I mean? I pray that it is not medicine, right? But if you take away from it that, to feel a little bit more lucky for the small pleasures we have every day, that would be great.

The movie takes such a grounded approach that you don't have to do so much explaining, but I was wondering, what rules did you and Rupert make for the aliens and the world?

As you can imagine that is very important for this movie and very important for science fiction in general, and hopefully, they make your job as a storyteller easier as opposed to harder. For example, we tried, as you rightly pointed out, in terms of the look and the feel of the movie, that everything was really grounded. So we didn't want to make any choices starting out that would go against that. We wanted to always reference history or references from the animal kingdom or whatever makes sense of it, so it hopefully had an internal logic. For example, in a way wanting that '70s thriller vibe in the middle of it, we wanted to strip out the modern technology but also have a real logic to that. It was looking at totalitarian regimes, for example Russia right now, trying to make their own internet, basically, so they can control content.

Okay, so if you were trying to control humanity, one of the first things you would do is outlaw the technology that connects people and at this point serves a extension of our own brains, right? You're literally crippling a society if you do that. Well, it makes perfect sense that they would do that, that they would take that away and that they would want all that information for themselves, because as much as they are strip mining the planet of its resources, human history and knowledge is a resource as well. They are taking all that away. And also, again that extends the storyline because then you get the fun of people having to communicate in different ways, which as you know, plays a big part in the storytelling.

Without spoiling anything, with the ending this movie has, how did it dictate or influence your choices in the build up? Building towards this ending, how did it make writing this script different from past experiences?

I think that, for us again, it was important that the ending of the movie, hopefully if it went the way we wanted it to, it would have genuine emotional impact, and that is not easy thing to achieve in any kind of storytelling, but particularly in genre storytelling that can be hard. Working back from that, with a limited amount of dialogue and hopefully every scene furthering the plot and the action of the movie, how you get to know these characters well enough so that when you find out what happened to them, there is a real emotional impact to that. So it was always that. It was, hopefully one line or one look or one exchange bring these characters to life in a real human way so you would get that emotion at the end in edition to the story.

Rupert says he wants to tell more stories in this world, so are there any ideas in particular you'd want to continue exploring in sequels? 

Oh yeah. We've talked about that. We talked about that. I mean, I grew to love so many of these characters so much and I think, I'm just always interested in particular people in fringes and the margins of society and how much everyday bravery can be found there, and obviously, how that can get elevated in a movie like this or whatever. I'm sure he talked to you about what the second movie would be and what the third movie would be, and how maybe...again without spoiling anything, depending on whether they succeed or fail in trying to light the match, what would be happening in other cities and places in the world, where people were trying to do the same thing or bringing the next level of conflict. Going from there, I think, that would be really fun.


Captive State is now in theaters.